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Could Jose Bautista Be Better in 2011?

Since Jose Bautista signed his shiny new contract with the Blue Jays on Wednesday, it has been a popular task to look for players who had comparable power spikes out of nowhere and look at how the rest of their careers unfolded. With legitimate reason, Bautista has been compared to Brady Anderson, Luis Gonzalez, Rich Aurilia, and Carlos Pena, and his 2010 season does bear some resemblance to their breakout seasons.

But there isĀ an area where Bautista’s season is remarkably different from those four, and almost every other hitter who had a monster season hitting balls over the wall. That difference leads me to wonder if we’re underestimating the chance that Jose Bautista could actually get better.

While Bautista hit .260/.378/.617 last year, he did it while posting a .233 batting average on balls in play, the third worst mark in the Major Leagues. Now, BABIP for hitters is not like BABIP for pitchers, where the outside factors swamp the player’s ability to control whether his balls in play go for hits or not, and as an extreme fly ball hitter, we’d expect Bautista to post a lower than average BABIP. But even accounting for the fact that most of his hard hit balls went over the wall – and thus were not deemed to be “in play” – a .233 BABIP still seems really low.

I decided to look at how other big time sluggers have fared on their non-HR contacted balls and see what the norm is in seasons where they hit for a lot of power. To do that I used the sweet new split seasons tool on the leaderboards to sort by single-season ISO since 1990, and I looked at the BABIP for every player who posted an ISO of .300 or higher. The average? .308.

There does not appear to be a pattern of high power seasons correlating with low BABIPs, even though there is some logic behind the idea that there would be a relationship. In fact, no one in the group posted a lower BABIP than Bautista. There were, however, a few others who were close.

1994 Matt Williams – .239 BABIP, .267/.319/.607, .382 wOBA
2005 Andruw Jones – .240 BABIP, .263/.347/.545, .382 wOBA
2006 Jason Giambi – .245 BABIP, .253/.413/.558, .407 wOBA
1994 Gary Sheffield – .248 BABIP, .276/.380/.584, .398 wOBA
1999 Mark McGwire – .250 BABIP, .278/.424/.697, .453 wOBA

That’s an interesting list of guys. Giambi and McGwire don’t really work as comparisons for Bautista, as they were big, slow first baseman at the ends of their careers. They could barely run, and they both had a history of low BABIPs over the years. Given where Bautista is at this stage of his career, their performance doesn’t seem all that relevant to what we’d expect from him next year.

Sheffield, Williams, and Jones are more comparable in terms of physical skills and where they were in their career arc. Sheffield is perhaps the most interesting, in that he was also a failed third baseman who moved to the corner outfield in order to hide his lack of defensive prowess. He was significantly younger than Bautista, however, and had established himself at an earlier age, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but the overall skillset is somewhat similar.

In 1995, the year after his first .300+ ISO season, his BABIP jumped from .248 all the way to .344. Because it was a strike-shortened year and Sheffield battled injuries, he only managed 276 plate appearances, but his wOBA jumped 50 points as the BABIP correction overwhelmed the regression in his power. Looking ahead another year, Sheffield actually posted another .300+ ISO season, and while he couldn’t sustain the .344 BABIP from the year prior, he did manage a .290 mark that allowed him to keep his wOBA at .454, making him one of the game’s best hitters.

Andruw Jones presents a less rosy outcome. Like Bautista, his power spike came later in his career, and he posted a low BABIP in the same year that he hit 50+ home runs. Like Sheffield, he saw his BABIP raise enough the following year to essentially cancel out the regression in power, and his wOBA in 2006 was basically the same as it was the year before. But Jones’ story doesn’t end there, as you guys know, and his rapid decline from 2007 on has involved consistently low BABIPs. I’d be a bit hesitant to use Jones as a comparison for Bautista unless Jose decides to spend his $65 million at local area buffets. We can’t say for sure that Jones’ weight gain was the reason for his regression, but it certainly couldn’t have helped. As long as Bautista stays reasonably athletic, I don’t think we should be projecting Jones’ early career demise on him.

Matt Williams is also an interesting case. He had two jumps in power at 27 and 28, the latter of which also came with a sharp drop in his BABIP, down to a Bautista-esque .239, though it was a strike-shortened season so the sample is smaller. The following (also strike shortened) season, Williams saw a Sheffield-like bounce in his BABIP and only minimal regression in his power, leading to a .438 wOBA that was easily the best mark of his career. The following year, the power went away but the BABIP stayed high, keeping Williams useful at the plate even as he ceased to be one of the game’s elite sluggers.

These three generally haven’t come up as comaprisons for Bautista because they were more established players when they had their high power/low BABIP combinations, but they do add some interesting dimensions to the mix. Looking through history, the evidence is pretty clear that Bautista should be expected to take a big step back in home runs next year, but there’s also some evidence that improvement in his non-HR results could serve to cancel out some of the coming regression. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Jays decided to lock him up before he got to free agency, realizing that there’s a decent chance he could still be an elite player even if he doesn’t launch all those home runs again.

The more I look at Bautista, the more I’m talking myself into liking this deal for the Blue Jays. Even if his power takes a big step back, here are a few players who posted similar BB% and K% last year – Evan Longoria, Brian McCann, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, and Jason Heyward. We shouldn’t expect Bautista’s power to completely disappear, and those guys posted ISOs in the .200ish range and were still highly productive hitters. Even with a big step back in power, if Bautista can sustain his walk and strikeout rates and sees his BABIP jump back to something more normal, he could still be one of the game’s best hitters.